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Manuscript Cataloguing in a Comparative Perspective:
State of the Art, Common Challenges, Future Directions

Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Hamburg
7 - 10 May 2018


During the last few decades, the study of the materiality of manuscripts (not only in codex form) belonging to European, Asian and African traditions has made significant progress, with a relevant impact on the understanding of their contents and the approaches to their scientific description. Scholars have become aware that the presentation of data in standard manuscript catalogues often does not allow to understand correctly the structure of the objects in relation to their contents, and sometimes even leads to the suspicion that their physical and historical complexity had escaped the attention of the cataloguers themselves.

At the same time, printed catalogues have been gradually complemented or replaced by electronic ones, increasingly numerous and varied as regards their features, promoters, and quality of the outcome. As a consequence, contemporary manuscript cataloguers ought to have not only a good training in the fields of palaeography and codicology and a solid knowledge of text histories, but also a growing familiarity with IT languages and architectures: a varied set of basic knowledge and skills that only a long and patient practice allows to strengthen and refine.

Despite the existence of old and prestigious cataloguing traditions, reflected in rigorous and comprehensive operational standards, a cursory glance into the existing manuscript catalogues (even within one and the same manuscript culture) is enough to perceive the high level of heterogeneity in the description of the physical features of the manuscripts, including the most basic and recurrent ones, even though these features (dimensions, collation, ruling techniques and types…) are often the same in manuscripts belonging to different cultural areas and of different contents: needless to say, the solutions applied are not all equally convincing. The same is also true for the rendering of the contents, still very lacking both from the point of view of the identification and the consistent representation of titles and authors’ names. More recently, comparative codicology also evidenced the lack of basic common standards for the physical description of non-codex books from different cultural areas.

As for the advent of electronic descriptions, the experiences gained during the last twenty years have shown that the way to fully exploit the potential of IT in the field of manuscript cataloguing is not as straightforward and simple as one might have expected and hoped: between uncritical enthusiasm and equally radical refuse, the need is increasingly felt for a sober assessment of the advantages and limitations of electronic catalogues and for a thoughtful reflection on the further developments and the conditions required to make e-catalogues durable and useful in a long range perspective.

The conference’s scope is

  • to briefly summarize and compare the state, main methods and perspectives of manuscript cataloguing (both in print and online) in a wide range of European, Asian and African manuscript cultures;
  • to make scholars and cataloguers aware of the approaches in use, encourage them to discuss the reasons for their adoption and their compared relevance;
  • to help them define their own cataloguing approach and employ it to correctly understand the manuscripts, and clearly describe their original structure, their contents and the evolution they may have undergone in the course of time.

The programme includes examples of recent achievements (and still open problems) in the main manuscript cultures; comparisons of methods and strategies which may be applied to the description of the single ‘external’, ‘internal’ and ‘historical’ features of the manuscript book - with examples of good practices and open challenges; an insight into the state and the further developments of electronic cataloguing and digital collections, with an overview of open issues and a focus on the most needed missing tools. Printed and on-line catalogues will not be dealt with separately, but assessed and compared within each session with regard to their specific contribution to the progress of cataloguing methods.

Scholars working on manuscripts from European, Asian and African book traditions will contribute to stimulate reflection on the following aspects:

  • models of printed and on-line catalogues belonging to different traditions, which may serve as basis for a shared reflection on the treatment of physical, content-related, and historical features;
  • methods for the (printed or on-line) description of contents (texts, images, music…), physical features (book structure, materials, ruling, layout, navigating devices, scribal features… );
  • examples of repertories, collections and resources for the description of manuscripts (unique identifiers, collections of texts, repertories of scribes, etc.);
  • suggestions and experiences aimed at a better integration of best practices between traditional printed catalogues, electronic catalogues and on-line image collections.

By presenting a choice of significant case studies, the conference aims to pin-point some major issues in manuscript cataloguing, aiming to mutual enrichment, and also – where possible – to the identification of realistic objectives of harmonization of approaches and best practices.

Patrick Andrist, Alessandro Bausi, Michael Friedrich, Marilena Maniaci

Programme and Abtracts

Download the conference programme (March 2018)


The workshop will be held at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Warburgstraße 26, Hamburg, Germany. How to find us


Participation is free of charge and vistors are welcome. Please register below.
You may find the Hamburg Tourismus site useful for finding a suitable accommodation.
For more information please contact us.

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On which days will you attend the sessions?
Monday, 7 May 2018
Tuesday, 8 May 2018
Wednesday, 9 May 2018
Thursday, 10 May 2018

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